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George F. Kennan: An American Life

John Lewis Gaddis's biography is an important examination of a man who shaped the current American way of life.

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During the last years of the Truman administration, Kennan, who had since relinquished his position as Policy Planning Staff Director to Paul Nitze, was asked, along with Nitze, to prepare a report on Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s proposal of a “super” moratorium on atomic weapons. A special NSC committee had been formed, including Acheson, David Lilienthal, and Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, to advise President Truman on the matter. Kennan’s paper, entitled “The International Control of Atomic Energy” was, in Kennan’s view, “one of the most important, if not the most important of all the documents I ever wrote in government.” But Kennan’s “prophetic” paper – 30 times the length of Nitze’s “crisp,” two-minute read – wasn’t considered relevant, though it would inform strategic debates on nuclear weapons for much of the 1970s and 80s.

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In 1950, at the behest of physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who had been recently appointed head of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Kennan was asked to join the Institute. Kennan spent several happy and productive decades there, but joining it was, if nothing else, fortuitous. On January 16, 1953, as President Eisenhower’s ambassador for Moscow, Kennan had angered secretary of state John Foster Dulles while speaking before the Pennsylvania State Bar Association, in which he openly criticized Dulles’ foreign policy positions as “dangerous.” Kennan later received word that Charles E. Bohlen was replacing him in Moscow and that no future appointment was coming. It was one of many instances where Kennan’s bombastic rhetoric would get him into trouble. Afterward, Kennan, still smarting from that episode, was living with Annalise in Adams County, Pennsylvania (near Gettysburg, where President Eisenhower had his own home), and briefly but seriously considered running for congress.

But another unfortunate mark on Kennan’s reputation occurred during the hearings of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. The country was awash in the so-called “Red Scare,” and McCarthy’s witch hunt had already taken a devastating toll on two of Kennan’s former colleagues: Robert Oppenheimer and former Foreign Service officer John Paton Davies. Though Kennan himself escaped inquiry, he confessed that while being interviewed by Oppenheimer investigators, he reported on others on “one or two occasions,” but only in the case of “minor employees.”

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